Shit Robot – We Got a Love

A belated review of Shit Robot‘s second album is only timely now because he just reappeared with his third, so this is a good opportunity to reappraise We Got a Love. When I first heard it, I was underwhelmed after the charming sound of From the Cradle to the Rave (2010), so let’s see if that’s still true.

It opens with a nice plodding dance piece, The Secret. Shit Robot always builds his music slowly, and this one builds into a pleasant disco track after a few minutes. And this is, as it turns out, the way things are on this release. Where the previous one would suddenly surprise you with Take ‘Em Up or Answering Machine, this one plods along nicely, but never really charms you.

It doesn’t help that a couple of the tracks are almost identically named. Do That Dance is great, and honestly not too far from the standard of the first album; Do It (Right) is perhaps a little further away.

This isn’t a particularly easy album to review, all told – and not because there’s anything particularly wrong with it. Quite the opposite, in fact – it washes across your ears entirely pleasantly, but it doesn’t really feel like a worthy follow-up to From the Cradle to the Rave.

Feels Real is a nice disco piece, but ultimately it’s a little forgettable again, but then we get Space Race, originally released as a b-side a couple of years earlier. Ironically, although perhaps not too surprisingly, it’s better than anything else on here.

Space Race is an instrumental piece, with darker electronica undertones at times. It’s fairly simple, and fits nicely on here, but it seems to stand out somehow just by virtue of being a little bit catchier than most of its neighbours.

After that, things seem a little more positive – Feels Like starts off nicely, although after a minute or so it builds into another slightly dull electro-disco piece. Title track We Got a Love is fairly anonymous too, another one with a disco “vibe” and a waily vocal from Reggie Watts.

Finally, we get a particularly long and – at least initially – fairly dull instrumental titled Tempest, and the second album is over. All in all, I can’t help but see We Got a Love as something of a disappointment. Maybe the collaborators weren’t quite right this time around, maybe it’s another case of a “difficult second album,” or maybe a spark was missing. Whatever the reason, hopefully it’s come back for the third album.

You can still find We Got a Love from major retailers.

The Future Sound of London – Environment Five

Listeners of The Future Sound of London have, for the most part, spent the last couple of decades wondering exactly where they have been hiding. One of the more prolific acts of the 1990s seemed to have almost entirely disappeared from the turn of the millennium onwards.

Except they never really disappeared – with several albums under their belts using the Amorphous Androgynous pseudonym, a whole series of From the Archives and Environments albums, and a load of other stuff, things never really went entirely quiet. But Environment Five, unleashed on an unsuspecting public in 2014, is unusual, in that it was their first truly new material for a very long time.

With Point of Departure, it feels as though they have slipped very comfortably back into the habit of making music. This would have fitted fairly comfortably on Dead Cities (1997) – but that’s not to say it’s in any way boring or dated. The Future Sound of London are, a quarter of a century after their first releases, every bit as contemporary as they ever were (although that may not be saying a huge amount).

Soft ambient pieces, such as the piano-based Source of Uncertainty, have always cropped up from time to time, and always add beautiful atmosphere. There are elements of Lifeforms towards the end, as the watery closing of the song blends into the more dramatic Image of the Past.

FSOL, as the fans call them, are very much an albums act, and their releases are beautifully crafted works of art, shifting gently from darker, uptempo, almost dancey electronic pieces, to ambient moments such as Beings of Light. There’s rarely a sudden contrast, but the more energetic, effects-laden In Solitude We Are Least Alone does stand out somewhat from its predecessor.

So it continues: Viewed from Below the Surface is a lovely piano piece; Multiples gently passes a minute or so; and Dying While Being Held features a delightful, almost harpsichord-like melody. Machines of the Subconscious is a dark, bass line-driven piece with chirping electro noises in the background.

Sometimes, it’s really best to close your eyes, and enjoy the environment that The Future Sound of London have created for us. Separating Dark and Lonely Waters from Somatosensory or The Dust Settles is a difficult task, but that’s not to say that you don’t enjoy them when you hear them.

Finally, before you know it, you’re onto the final track, the soft piano-and-rattlesnake duet of Moments of Isolation, and Environment Five is over already. It’s not a long album, and actually it probably won’t appear on too many “best of all time” lists either, but if you’re in need of another dose from the people who brought us Papua New Guinea and My Kingdom – and, let’s face it, you’re reading this, so you very probably are – this is an unexpected and rather wonderful return to form.

You can find Environment Five at the official FSOL website, and you’ll still get a nice bonus EP with it if you buy it directly from them.

David Bowie – Nothing Has Changed

Compilation albums are often a little tricky to get right – they typically miss off one or two of the most important things, either due to differing preferences or misguided focus. Looking now, there’s relatively little difference between Best of Bowie (2002) and Nothing Has Changed (2014). It seems the template for the perfect David Bowie compilation is fairly well set in stone.

Both albums start with the exceptional Space Oddity, slightly unbelievably originally released in 1969. Although Bowie had released a handful of things before this, as the perplexingly sequenced triple CD version of Nothing Has Changed attests, but this does seem to be where his story really begins.

After the sad news of his death a month ago, like most people, I set about listening to as much as I could of his back catalogue, and the singles seemed a good place to start.

When I was looking for a David Bowie singles collection, I had decided on the double CD version of Nothing Has Changed – the tracks are in a sensible order, it’s a digestible amount of music, and most of the key tracks are there. As it turns out, it covers, to some degree, the entirety of his career too, although I’m sure other compilations are on their way. The early key hits – The Man Who Sold the WorldChanges, and Oh! You Pretty Things very quickly build a picture of Bowie’s repertoire.

Many people have written more eloquently than I ever could about how Bowie was a man out of his time (possibly on a different planet too), and how he was able to speak to pretty much everybody in a language that they could understand. But what’s particularly striking here is just how varied he was. Some of his early 1970s hits would have been very clearly contemporary. Others, like Life on Mars? and Starman, were years ahead of their time.

You don’t have to like everything here. I can’t help but wonder if All the Young Dudes was the result of a few too many controlled substances, and Sorrow falls a bit flat for me. I also find myself feeling a little underwhelmed by the trio of FameGolden Years, and Sound and Vision – he seemed to be playing it a little too safe. But that’s OK – I imagine even the most ardent of fans struggles with a few things here. Anyway, there’s always “Heroes” to pick things up.

Disc one of this set takes us up to 1980, ending with the iconic Ashes to Ashes, leaving the remaining 35 years to squeeze uncomfortably onto the second disc. This is probably fair – he made his name in the 1970s after all – but it does feel like a bit of a whirlwind tour at times.

It starts well, with the trio of Under PressureLet’s Dance, and China Girl, and actually the quality never really lets up. But by the time we get to the 1990s with Jump They Say, there’s only room for one track from each studio album. Not even that in some cases actually – I’m inordinately fond of the 1996 collaboration with Pet Shop Boys Hallo Spaceboy, but it’s hardly representative of the Outside album, and other albums from this period are omitted in their entirety.

But what this collection has, which others did not, is some of Bowie’s more exquisite later moments – particularly the deeply introspective Thursday’s Child and the glorious Where are We Now? I’m not hugely keen on the exclusive Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), but it’s nice to have it here too, to complete the cross-section of a five-decade career.

For all the failings it may have, and they questions you might come up with, Nothing Has Changed is an exceptional collection, by one of the most important musicians ever to have lived. If you don’t already have his entire back catalogue, this is an essential purchase.

You can still find Nothing Has Changed at all major retailers, in two disc and three disc versions.

Röyksopp – The Inevitable End

Hot on the heels of the collaborative mini-album with Robyn, Do it Again, Röyksopp quickly reappeared with what they described as their last album “in this format”, The Inevitable End. Time will tell what they actually mean by that, but one can only guess that they were starting to find the two years off, two years on pattern of modern music somewhat stifling creatively. Hopefully they’ll come up with something else, rather than just disappear into obscurity, as others have before them.

But The Inevitable End is still an album that can be enjoyed on many levels. It opens with the darkly analogue sound of Skulls, hinting slightly in places at the glorious sound of their second album The Understanding (2005). The vocals are curious and heavily obscured by effects, but the overall sound is exceptional – this is a great way to enter an album.

Reworked from the Do it Again album comes Monument, now with an enormous analogue counter-melody, and sounding even better than it did originally. The standard here really is exceptionally high, and it continues, as Monument drifts into what might be the best track on this album, the adorable Sordid Affair, another piece which might have fitted beautifully on the second album alongside What Else is There?

There is an unmistakable air of introspection here. Melody AM (2001) was naïve and Nordic; The Understanding was mysterious; Junior (2009) was loud and powerful; and somehow The Inevitable End is all of those at once. But we don’t want to think of it as any kind of end, so you have to put those thoughts out of your mind.

You Know I Have to Go is the first of several collaborations on here with Jamie from The Irrepressibles, and introduces us to his exceptionally emotive voice. It’s the longest track on here, clocking in at seven and a half minutes, but it’s also quite exceptional. And then, with a bit of a bang, Susanne Sundfør turns up to deliver the brilliant Save Me. Like most of this album, it’s huge, powerful, and entirely unforgettable.

The enormous pads that herald I Had This Thing are entirely appropriate, as Jamie Irrepressible turns up to deliver an exceptional song. It was later released as one of the singles, and deservedly so – it’s absolutely brilliant.

If anything lets this album down, it’s Rong. Even then, it’s only a short and momentary blip, with Robyn suddenly and inexplicably swearing at listeners about how much she hates them. But never mind, Here She Comes Again quickly picks things up again.

A long time before this album appeared, Running to the Sea came along as its lead single, and I predicted great things for this album. Well, it’s always good to be proved right, but this song is still one of the most exceptional pieces of music that Röyksopp have ever recorded. An exceptional vocal from Susanne Sundfør, set to an enormous, moving backing track. This is truly faultless.

Any other artist could have given up after something like that, but for some reason Röyksopp keep going. All of the final three tracks, Compulsion, Coup de Grace, and Thank You are premium quality. What a send-off this is.

It would also be hard to mention this album without adding a word for the superlative second disc, with another five songs, some of which are more than deserving of a place on the main album. But let’s hope that this isn’t really the end, but if it does have to be, then it’s an amazing send-off.

 

Erasure – Snow Globe

With Christmas quickly approaching, I thought it might be nice to review something festive. You were probably as surprised as I was a couple of years ago when Erasure suddenly announced they were going to release a Christmas album – and if you put your fingers in your ears and ignored it, you’ll probably be equally surprised to learn that it’s actually quite good.

The first track is the inadvisably named Bells of Love (Isabelle’s of Love), which must have seemed a hilarious pun at some point, but falls a bit flat here. That said, it’s not a bad song – after all Erasure‘s failings between Loveboat (2000) and Tomorrow’s World (2012) – there were many – the one lesson they really seem to have learnt is how to write a catchy song. This one even has a nice lyric to go with the melody, and it’s easy to nod your head along.

A cover of the traditional hymn Gaudete follows. I’m all for pop songs in Latin personally, and when they’re as gloriously silly as this one, you really just have to shut up and enjoy it. Andy Bell‘s delivery is brilliant (although quite what the Latins would make of his pronunciation is difficult to say), and Vince Clarke‘s synth work complements the vocals perfectly.

Recent Erasure efforts have tended to contain at least one song that reminds you of just how good they used to be back in the late 80s and early 90s, and Snow Globe is no exception. Make it Wonderful, a sad omission from their recent best of compilation, surely belongs alongside Love to Hate YouSometimes, and Always as one of their finest songs. A hugely uplifting lyric, accompanied by some brilliant synth lines – what else could you ask for?

It’s difficult not to admire Erasure here. To release a Christmas album of covers is one thing, and this could easily have been a failure of Other People’s Songs (2003) proportions, but impressively most of the songs on here are actually original. Sleep Quietly is one of the few exceptions, and despite being very heavy on the religion, it’s a lovely song.

Interestingly Clarke and Bell decided to revisit their earlier festive efforts when recording this release, and so God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and She Won’t Be Home both appears (in vastly inferior form) on the second disc. Which gives Silent Night, previously performed as a radio session way back in the early days, a bit of context here – otherwise, nice though it is, it would seem a bit pointless, although the soft ambient backing does make for a nice instrumental (also on the bonus disc).

There are forgettable pieces on here – you’re not likely to remember Loving Man or Midnight Clear much after Epiphany – and there are even some reasonably poor moments – There’ll Be No Tomorrow and the closing piece Silver Bells are pretty sub-par – so perhaps keeping this as a more concise EP might have been wise. But it’s difficult to get annoyed, because it’s just so festive.

The chiptune take on The Christmas Song is rather brilliant – you have no idea how happy it would make me to hear this in Tesco’s on Christmas Eve. Actually, Bleak Midwinter and Blood on the Snow are both pretty good too.

It only remains to mention the cover of White Christmas, which is pleasant – it’s still a lovely song – but lacks both the silly, gaudy qualities of Gaudete and the chiptune fun of The Christmas Song.

But all told, this is a pretty good album. If nothing else, it will be worth bringing out for a few Christmases so you can watch Granny rock back and forth in her chair and fall asleep to something different, fun, and very entertaining indeed.

We’ve been listening to the Deluxe Nutcracker Edition of Snow Globe, which is available here.

Pet Shop Boys – Vocal

If there’s a song which defines Pet Shop Boys‘ most recent album Electric, it’s probably Vocal – it could almost be a song about this album. It’s every bit as good as anything else on here, and it’s also an enormous track.

This single isn’t for the mass radio market – there’s no radio edit here (there’s one on the promo version, but nothing that was ever commercially released) so the first track is the truly exceptional album version, clocking in at six and a half minutes. As a way to introduce this CD, it can’t be faulted.

Stalwart Pet Shop Boys fans will quickly note the lack of b-sides here – excluding a couple of one or two track releases, this is actually their first single ever to lack its own bonus track. Given the quality of the Thursday and Love is a Bourgeois Construct b-sides, that’s perhaps no great loss, but it does seem a shame.

Still, there are plenty of remixes to choose from, starting with a dub from Rektchordz, which is pretty decent. It takes a few vocal chunks, adds a big Euro bass line, and some huge house beats, and that’s about the sum of it. At least it’s better than the version that follows, Armageddon Turk‘s Tear Gas mix, but it’s still difficult to find anything particularly positive to say as a commentary. It’s a dub mix.

The Tear Gas mix turns what was a very good song into a fairly dull slab of modern trance, full of high-treble synths, and effect-laden riffs and swell sounds. At least it has a full vocal, otherwise it would probably be largely without merit.

Pet Shop Boys‘ old friend Tom Stephan turns up next with his version, as half of Cucaracha, and The Cucarachas Mix is a fairly pleasant house mix, with a slightly insane rhythm, a simple house bass line, some cow bells, and not an enormous amount else.

Then comes JRMX with his club mix, and after everything else it seems like a breath of fresh air. It’s really just another trance mix, which yet again seems to fail to find anything particular to highlight in the original, but somehow it’s both close enough and different enough to stand out from the rest.

Any one or two of these mixes, if placed alongside some interesting new tracks, would have helped form a pretty strong single package, but there’s just too much of the same here. The tribal beats and screechy swells of Nacho Chapado and Ivan Gomez‘s remix aren’t any better than anything else, and it just seems pretty interminable.

Eventually it does end, and perhaps unexpectedly Rektchordz‘s full vocal mix turns out to be much the same as the dub version we heard earlier, just with a few more of the words included. It’s still one of the better versions though.

You could probably be forgiven for missing WAWA‘s version after all that – hidden amongst a mêlée of almost identical versions, it really doesn’t stand out, although it’s actually one of the better takes. It’s followed by another dub version, this time from Cucaracha, and then the hour of remixes is finally over.

So Vocal proves once and for all that a great song doesn’t necessarily make a great single package, or even a good set of remixes. This is really more of a case of a missed opportunity than anything else.

You can still find the Vocal single as a download, although the CD version seems to be hard to lay your hands on now.

DARKSIDE – Psychic

For a decade or so, the lack of new material from Jean-Michel Jarre cast a very dark shadow over the world of electronic music which seemed impossible to fill. But there were those who attempted to stand in for him, one of whom was the suspiciously similarly named Nicholas Jaar, a Chilean musician whose DARKSIDE project first appeared with their Psychic album in 2013.

To talk only about Jarre’s influence would be unfair – it’s strong, but there are many other factors at play here as well. Lead track Golden Arrow burbles along gently for over eleven minutes, bringing in ambient “found” sounds and synthetic energy from time to time. Once the rhythm finally arrives, five minutes in, you should have a clear idea of what this album’s going to be about. The delay-laden synth sounds that follow as the rhythm progresses into more of a march only serve to back up your first impressions.

The short piece Sitra, which follows, is unexciting, but leads us gradually through to Heart, which for the first time brings us a vocal, with lyrics, although they’re largely unintelligible. There’s something rather sweet about the rhythmic nature of this track, taking you back to the early 1970s somehow. Apart from the processing, the DARKSIDE project is clearly firmly rooted in the past.

Paper Trails for the first time brings us a comprehensible vocal, which, coupled with a particularly funky rhythm, makes for a great song. This is not the sort of thing that’s ever going to get a lot of radio play, but it’s fantastic nonetheless.

If this album has a low point, it’s with the next piece, The Only Shrine I’ve Seen, which while it has nothing especially wrong with it, it feels a bit pointless too somehow. But this is a fairly concise album, and before long Freak, Go Home is upon us, lifting the standards again. This is probably the best track on here, with its enormous melodic swells. It sounds a bit like the soundtrack to an advert for some kind of mood-enhancing coffee.

The gentler chimes and squawks of Greek Light follow, carrying us through to the final track, the glorious Metatron. As with much of this album, it wouldn’t necessarily be instantly accessible, but there’s something entirely pleasant about it. The melodic piano and unsettling choral pads come together rather beautifully. It’s not long before it fades away, and the album is over already.

Psychic is an excellent one-off release for DARKSIDE, and even if they never release anything else under this name, we should be grateful for this.

You can find Psychic at all major online retailers.